The Wild Man
William K. Kilpatrick on Why Gorillas Don’t Build Libraries But Men Do
It is well known that Clarence Darrow triumphed over William Jennings Bryan in the famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925. Less well known is the fact that six years later Darrow was easily trounced by G. K. Chesterton in a debate on science and religion at the Mecca Temple in New York City. Darrow’s debater tricks were no match for Chesterton’s robust commonsense arguments.
Although the debate over evolution has itself evolved, the need for maintaining a commonsense perspective on the issue remains essential. The scientific complexity of the current debate does not preclude arguments based on logic and everyday observation, any more than the complexity of legal issues debars the use of native good judgment in resolving them.
But before considering these commonsense arguments, let’s remind ourselves why the debate is important in the first place. The evolution debate is not just an argument about two views of science. It is also, and even primarily, about two views of morality. Simply put, the theory of evolution has always been used as a justification for moral relativity.
If human beings are merely animals, there is no justification for holding them to moral standards that seem designed for angels. Moreover, if everything is the product of blind chance, the world is essentially meaningless, and all schemes of morality are equally meaningless. In other words, if we are related to the chimps, then why can’t we have sexual freedom like the chimps, and besides, what does it all matter anyway?
Because the evolution debate is tangled up with a moral debate, it is not realistic to argue it solely in terms of science. Whenever we think carefully about origins—whether of the material universe or of human beings—we immediately run into quandaries that lie outside the reach of science. There is not and never can be a scientific theory capable of explaining how nothing evolves into something. By the same token, there appears to be no strict scientific proof of meaningfulness. But this does not rule out the use of other kinds of proofs and probabilities.
When G. K. Chesterton wrote about evolution nearly a century ago, the scientific evidence for and against it was sketchy. He wisely avoided getting bogged down in the minutiae of the fossil record, and chose instead to argue, as he usually did, on the basis of common sense, which he described as an “instinct for the probable.”
He freely admitted the probability of natural selection (it is common knowledge, he said, “that things fitted for survival do survive”). He admitted the possibility of physical evolution (“there may be a broken trail of stones and bones faintly suggesting the development of the human body”).
But he saw nothing in evolutionary theory that could possibly explain the phenomenon of human intelligence. One of the big advantages of common sense, as he understood, is that it usually alerts us when something uncommon crops up. And the appearance of intelligence on earth had nothing common about it; rather, it had all the appearances of a one-of-a-kind event.
Chesterton’s emphasis on perspective and proportion is just as important now as it was then. Arguments focused on narrow topics, such as anatomical similarities or the chemical composition of proteins, might cause us to miss the main point about human evolution—the point that Chesterton grasped immediately—namely, the flagrantly exceptional nature of man. “The simplest truth about man,” he wrote, “is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on earth.”
Forget for a moment those imaginary illustrations of apes morphing into men that adorn the pages of children’s biology books. Instead, go to the nearest zoo and have a look at our nearest “relative.” (But be on guard—in recent months gorillas in two US zoos have escaped and, apparently failing to recognize their close relations, inflicted considerable damage on nearby humans).
Observe the gorillas closely. What do they do? Well, essentially they do nothing—nothing, that is, that would be of much interest to an adult human. They get up, they move around, they sit down again. This is pretty much what gorillas in the wild do as well. This, I think we can safely guess, is what gorillas did 5,000 years ago and even 50,000 years ago.
Evolution is generally understood to be a kind of progress. But what kind of progress is this? “That an ape has hands,” wrote Chesterton, “is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them.”
Animal lovers may find this line of criticism insensitive, but for the sake of argument we must be even more insensitive and ask a few more questions. Such as: Where are the gorilla libraries? The gorilla inventions? The gorilla hospitals? The gorilla airplanes and airports?
It’s not just that gorillas have never made the tiniest step in this direction; neither have any other creatures. Moreover, none of us really expects that they ever will. “Common sense,” observes Chesterton, “must long ago have told us that the animals are not to all appearances evolving in that sense.”
“In that sense.” In a very real sense, man is the only animal that has evolved. In comparison, the other animals remain mired in the mud. The history of the human race is a history of spectacular accomplishment piled upon spectacular accomplishment. Moreover, from an evolutionary perspective, these forward thrusts occurred in the blink of an eye. Human progress is not measured in ages and ages of geological time but in mere decades. Things that were thought impossible forty years ago are now routine.
“We talk of wild animals,” wrote Chesterton, “but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out.” Animals may be plodding along under the rule of some natural evolutionary scheme, but man seems to be progressing by a different set of rules. In some ways human beings fit into the natural scheme of things, but in other ways they decidedly do not.
The fact that some animals bear a physical resemblance to us and the fact that we tend to take human accomplishments for granted blind us to the difference. Whether or not there is a gap in the fossil record, there is a massive score gap in the achievement exams administered by time. The distance that separates man from the animals is not just a gap, it is a chasm. The only place where the chasm has been bridged is in the imagination of some evolutionists.
The difference is so immense that it can only be explained in terms of a revolution, not an evolution. In the case of man, some great leap forward seems to have occurred. Indeed, in recent decades Darwinian evolutionists have been forced to speak of evolutionary “leaps” or “jumps” in an attempt to bridge the gap. In some essential respects vis-à-vis the animal kingdom we might as well live on different planets.
Did humans perhaps come to earth eons ago from another world? How else to account for such an extraordinary creature among so many dumb animals? The difficulty of explaining the appearance even of simple life forms caused Sir Francis Crick to propose a similar scenario. Crick, a Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, theorized that the original spores of life on earth were sent in a rocket ship by space aliens.
I don’t happen to believe any of this, but it is a useful conjecture in that it prompts us to think in terms (as we ought to) of some extraordinary extraterrestrial event. And this is more or less the way Christianity has taught us to think about the appearance of man: in terms of a miracle, or divine intervention, or, in Chesterton’s words, “a transaction outside of time.”
Crucial One Percent
On the physical level we do share many traits with other creatures. But the fact that we have a biological or natural relation with animals does not weaken the religious argument. The similarity on the natural level only strengthens the claim of the theologians that man is a creature who is called to transcend nature in order to partake of the supernatural order.
Evolutionists like to point out that humans and apes share pretty much the same genetic makeup. Apes, apparently, are ninety-nine percent identical to us on a genetic level—closer, we are told, than the horse is to the zebra or the porpoise to the dolphin. The discovery prompted John Gribbin and Jeremy Cherfas, authors of The First Chimpanzee, to exclaim: “How Darwin would have welcomed this evidence. How it would have confounded his critics.”
Maybe, or maybe not. Maybe Darwin would have found it too close for comfort—because if the DNA of humans differs from the DNA of apes by such a tiny amount, it puts an awful burden of explanation on the one percent of remaining genetic difference. How can that one percent account for the head-slapping differences in intelligence, language development, creativity, and other abilities that separate humans from apes not just by a country mile but by light years? (We can infer from the frequent head-slapping activity of chimpanzees that they are bothered by the same question.)
Such minor genetic differences suggest major metaphysical differences. They suggest, in short, that the link between man and animal was broken by some tremendous force outside nature. We would be wise to take a second look at what common sense tells us—namely, that something quite uncommon once happened on this earth.
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“The Wild Man” first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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